Are You Testing Emergency Lighting?

Oct. 22, 2013
Meet the code requirements or assume the risk.

How long has it been since you tested your emergency lighting?

Too many FMs would say it has been longer than a month, a risky answer. The penalties for putting off the mandatory testing can be steep, and if the worst happens and your building needs to be evacuated, the emergency lighting system could literally mean life or death for someone trying to escape.

What’s Required
Illuminated paths that help occupants exit buildings during emergencies are mandated by multiple codes and standards, including the National Fire Protection Agency’s NFPA 101 and 70, the International Fire Code and International Building Code, the National Electrical Code, and OSHA regulations.

“All of these governing bodies require that you have proper emergency egress lighting installed correctly before occupants ever move in,” explains Heath Martin, product manager for the lighting controls sector of Schneider Electric. “That requires an adequate amount of light, exit signs placed in the right areas and properly lit, and other stipulations of that nature so that no matter where an occupant is, they have the ability to exit the building.”

Regardless of the size or type of your facility, you are required to perform a 30-second test every month, as well as a 90-minute test once a year that involves cutting the power to the facility as if you were having an actual emergency.

“The big issue is that people are unaware that they have to do the testing,” says Scott Galentine, value stream manager for general purpose emergency products at Acuity Brands Lighting. “It is a non-negotiable law that you must test.”

Testing Options
NFPA 101 allows three methods of testing, though your choice will likely be dictated by what type of system is installed in your building.

  1. Fully manual testing requires you to walk the building, push the test button on every emergency fixture, and record the results.
  2. Self-diagnostic fixtures can run their own monthly tests, but you’ll have to manually conduct the annual 90-minute test and throw the breaker yourself.
  3. Automated systems with computer backup are capable of running both the monthly and annual tests and recording the results for you.

An average-sized maintenance staff can count on using the better part of a day to test a building with about 200 emergency lighting fixtures in it, such as a shopping center or large school, Galantine notes. Most emergency fixtures are mounted between 7.5 and 20 feet from the floor, requiring a scissor lift or a ladder, so you can save yourself considerable annoyance by conducting the testing on a weekend when the building is unoccupied.

The Risks of Ignoring Testing
Buildings with lapsed emergency testing are typically not inspected regularly by the fire marshal and haven’t been subject to an OSHA audit, Galantine explains.

“If they’re getting regular visits and they’re fully aware of what can happen if their emergency equipment doesn’t function properly, then they become adamant about doing the testing,” says Galantine. “If there’s an audit and your fixtures aren’t operating or you don’t have the test records, the result is thousands of dollars in fines.”

The potential ramifications of a real emergency mean that delaying the testing puts you at risk for more than just fees, Martin adds.

“During egress, you’re risking people tripping and falling. Injuries are a serious issue, especially when you have stairwells because they’re not typically illuminated by windows,” explains Martin. “If you have an egress situation and the stairwell goes dark, it tends to be scary because you can’t see anything – because you’ve taken away the ability to see, you’ve increased the probability of people making mistakes because now they’re nervous. You’ve elevated it to a stressful situation because you took away one of their senses.

“On top of that, if someone does not or cannot make it out – and that is a real threat – obviously death is possible,” Martin adds. “That’s why you need to be aware and provide adequate illumination for egress lighting.”

Janelle Penny [email protected] is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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